Dangerously Addictive Glass: Poison Bottles
By Jane Eastman
When it comes to finding a Victorian “Not To Be Taken” bottle, the question has to be, “Well, did you take it?” and the punchline will always be, “I most certainly did!”
Not only are warning bottles beautiful, but they contain more than a drop of deadly allure, as one imagines shady goings-on, the world of Sherlock Holmes, and murder most horrid! In the 19th-century, tales of murder by poisoning grabbed the headlines, but the reality was as tragic as it was mundane: there was an almost pathetic catalogue of deaths by poisoning, which simply occurred accidentally through far too easily obtained and badly labeled lethal products.
Before the mid-19th century, anyone could buy poisonous substances over the counter from the grocers. You could purchase deadly rat poison, ammonia, or arsenic and take it home unlabeled (along with your food shopping) in any container you chose to be filled. Rather than pay for the packaging along with the product, people would bring along their freely available domestic containers, such as old food jars and drinks bottles. It comes as little surprise to learn that the inevitable mix-ups happened: hundreds of cases of accidental deaths by poisoning were recorded every year.
The Arsenic Act of 1851 was by the United Kingdom Parliament to try to control the sale of toxic substances. For the first time, sales of arsenic had to be recorded in a register—and only sold to an adult. Subsequent acts followed, as the sale of poisons gradually became more regulated, but it was not until the Poisons and Pharmacy Act of 1908 that the use of warning bottles actually became a requirement by law. During this time it was the designers and manufacturers who took the lead, responding to the call for “safe” bottles by lodging an array of patent applications for containers, which would be instantly recognizable by touch. These included figural shapes such as skulls and lay-down coffins as well as a multitude of weird and wonderful designs. The more standard shapes came in brightly colored glass, featuring unmistakable grooves, bumps, or ridges, all featuring a tactile element that instantly identified a poison bottle by touch. There would be no more mistaking a bottle of carbolic acid for a cough medicine in your dimly lit Victorian home.
The first time I ever found a poison bottle in the water, I spied it peeking out of the silty edge of a fast flowing stream. I lifted it excitedly, dazzled by apple green glass, which looked all the more vivid surrounded by the lush growth of early summer. The bottle was rectangular in shape, with grooves down three sides, and the words, “Not To Be Taken,” embossed in bold on the front. Known as a “flat,” this was a standard dispensing shape of poison, but for me, the experience of finding it was anything but standard: I was elated!
The most commonly found poison is hexagonal in shape and cobalt blue in color. The first ever patented poison came in this design (Savory & Barker patent, 1859), and it was based on the standard apothecary dispensing bottle in use from the late 18th century. As a general guide, green is slightly rarer than blue and amber poisons are the rarest color of all. Sizes in this shape go from 1 to 20 ounces, but rare larger sizes can go up to 80 ounces. My tiny 1/8th-ounce (2 dram) bottle is also a rare size.
A favorite poison came from a small rural bottle dump near my home. Here people had been carting their rubbish to the edge of the village to dispose of it, until household collection was introduced after World War II. The bottle dump was in use in the 1920s and 1930s, a time period that was very much still the heyday of the poison bottle, and this is principally why I go there to dig. I will never forget seeing the slither of green glass in the ashy layers as I gingerly prised a Lewis & Towers patent poison out of the ground, fully intact. Known as the “Practical Poison,” this type of bottle is sometimes referred to as a “coffin” shape—it is an irregular hexagon with a large flat back for the label. Rather than ridges, this bottle features embossed criss-crosses, known as hobnails, to warn of the poisonous liquid that it once contained.
I have been lucky to gather a modest collection of poisons, but they’re relatively few and far between, and each one represents a highlight of a memorable treasure hunt! This is not just my experience—antique poisons are desirable finds for all bottle hunters in the U.K., where no other category of bottle collecting makes for such a vivid and colorful display.
Different bottle types
This Farmers rat paste bottle is one of only four recorded poisons that feature pictorial embossing. It is aqua in color, and rather than having ridges or hobnails to warn of the contents, it features a rat embossed on the base. This small bottle has a wide neck with a cheaply produced burst lip and would have been laid down with its scented contents used as a bait trap. This rare little bottle was found by my wading buddy Mike, who, seeing my instant excitement as he lifted it from the riverbed, generously passed it to me.
Lysol was invented in Germany in 1889 as a disinfectant made from creosote and soft soap. There was a huge range of colors for these attractive, diamond latticed warning bottles. One beautiful early amber bottle was a very surprising find: it was dug out of my back garden during building works.
Ammonia was widely used as a cleaning product, not only around the house and in the laundry, but rather surprisingly this pungent disinfectant was once used in the bath, too! Glass ammonia bottles (they also came in stoneware) are often aqua in color and described as oval shaped, with sloped shoulders and warning studs or ridges. Ammonia was categorized as a lesser poison, therefore warning bottles are marked “Poisonous,” as opposed to “Poison,” the higher category of poison.
Phials with ribbed markings and sometimes embossed with the word “poisonous” contained tincture of iodine, which was used as a disinfectant for cuts and bruises.
The “death knell” for the British poison bottle came in the years after World War II, with the realization that colorful warning bottles were in fact more attractive to children, so these bottles were phased out with a change of emphasis towards incorporating child-proof closures.
The vast majority of Victorian household bottles came in cheap-to-make, aqua-colored glass. Relaxing on the eye, and often full of bubbles, it seems to me that this color has an affinity with the watery surroundings of the chalk streams where I love to search. In contrast, spotting a poison punctuates any leisurely wade with a dose of excitement: antique poison bottles are the rare jewels of the riverbed!
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2021 issue.
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Go wading for treasures with Jane Eastman from My Ordinary Treasure
Come along as Jane Eastman @myordinarytreasure takes us on a video virtual beachcombing trip to some of her favorite rivers in England, where she finds treasures buried for centuries in the silt. She also shares some of her favorite pieces in her collection, and gives a brief history of some notable finds.
I have a small green vintage glass bottle with a cork with a skull on the front of it
Found your interesting site following looking up any details on a pretty antique bottle i just found in what i know to be an old long since demolished mill rubbish tip.
From your descriptions i now think its an Iodine bottle manufactured by United Glass Bottles.
The reason I’ve read your article is that I found a cobalt poison bottle today!
What a great article. I’m researching poison bottles for a performance project and it was so lovely to get some insight. Thank you very much!